Component of the Month: The Transistor

Component of the Month: The Transistor

COTM_AugustTransistorEach month this year, we’re exploring a different electronic component, delving into what it is, how it works, and how you use it in projects. Last month we covered capacitors, and before that we looked at LEDs and diodes. This month we examine tranistors! As always, we’ll start things off with an introduction to transistors via an edited excerpt from Charles Platt’s essential Encyclopedia of Electronic Components: Volume 1. Click on the pic to the right to see all of our CotM coverage.

The word transistor, on its own, is often used to mean bipolar transistor, as this was the type that became most widely used in the field of discrete semiconductors. However, bipolar transistor is the correct term. It is sometimes referred to as a bipolar junction transistor or BJT.

What It Does

eeco_2803A bipolar transistor amplifies fluctuations in current or can be used to switch current on and off. In its amplifying mode, it replaced the vacuum tubes that were formerly used in the amplification of audio signals and many other applications. In its switching mode it resembles a relay, although in its “off” state the transistor still allows a very small amount of current flow, known as leakage.

A bipolar transistor is described as a discrete semiconductor device when it is individually packaged, with three leads or contacts. A package containing multiple transistors is an integrated circuit. A Darlington pair actually contains two transistors, but is included here as a discrete component because it is packaged similarly and functions like a single transistor.

How It Works

Although the earliest transistors were fabricated from germanium, silicon has become the most commonly used material. Silicon behaves like an insulator, in its pure state at room temperature, but can be “doped” (carefully contaminated) with impurities that introduce a surplus of electrons unbonded from individual atoms. The result is an N-type semiconductor that can be induced to allow the movement of electrons through it, if it is biased with an external voltage. Forward bias means the application of a positive voltage, while reverse bias means reversing that voltage.

Other dopants can create a deficit of electrons, which can be thought of as a surplus of “holes” that can be filled by electrons. The result is a P-type semiconductor.

eeco_2802A bipolar NPN transistor consists of a thin central P-type layer sandwiched between two thicker N-type layers. The three layers are referred to as collector, base, and emitter, with a wire or contact attached to each of them. When a negative charge is applied to the emitter, electrons are forced by mutual repulsion toward the central base layer. If a forward bias (positive potential) is applied to the base, electrons will tend to be attracted out through the base. However, because the base layer is so thin, the electrons are now close to the collector. If the base voltage increases, the additional energy encourages the electrons to jump into the collector, from which they will make their way to the positive current source, which can be thought of as having an even greater deficit of electrons.

Thus, the emitter of an NPN bipolar transistor emits electrons into the transistor, while the collector collects them from the base and moves them out of the transistor. It is important to remember that since electrons carry a negative charge, the flow of electrons moves from negative to positive. The concept of positive-to-negative current is a fiction that exists only for historical reasons. Nevertheless, the arrow in a transistor schematic symbol points in the direction of conventional (positive-to-negative) current.

In a PNP transistor, a thin N-type layer is sandwiched between two thicker P-type layers, the base is negatively biased relative to the emitter, and the function of an NPN transistor is reversed, as the terms “emitter” and “collector” now refer to the movement of electron-holes rather than electrons. The collector is negative relative to the base, and the resulting positive-to-negative current flow moves from emitter to base to collector. The arrow in the schematic symbol for a PNP transistor still indicates the direction of positive current flow.


Small signal transistors are defined as having a maximum collector current of 500 mA and maximum collector power dissipation of 1 watt. They can be used for audio amplification of low-level inputs and for switching of small currents. When determining whether a small-signal transistor can control an inductive load such as a motor or relay coil, bear in mind that the initial current surge will be greater than the rated current draw during sustained operation.

Small switching transistors have some overlap in specification with small signal transistors, but generally have a faster response time, lower beta value, and may be more limited in their tolerance for collector current. Check the manufacturer’s datasheet for details.

High frequency transistors are primarily used in video amplifiers and oscillators, are physically small, and have a maximum frequency rating as high as 2,000 MHz.

Power transistors are defined as being capable of handling at least 1 watt, with upper limits that can be as high as 500 watts and 150 amps. They are physically larger than the other types, and may be used in the output stages of audio amplifiers, and in switching power supplies (see the chapter on power supplies in Volume 1). Typically they have a much lower current gain than smaller transistors (20 or 30 as opposed to 100 or more).

eeco_2804Sample transistors are shown in the figure to the right. Top: A 2N3055 NPN power transistor. This type was originally introduced in the late 1960s, and versions are still being manufactured. It is often found in power supplies and in push-pull power amplifiers, and has a total power dissipation rating of 115W. Second row, far left: general purpose switching-amplification PNP power transistor rated for up to 50W power dissipation. Second row, far right: A high-frequency switching transistor for use in lighting ballast, converters, inverters, switching regulators, and motor control systems. It tolerates relatively high voltages (up to 700V collector-emitter peak) and is rated for up to 80W total power dissipation. Second row, center-left and center-right: Two variants of the 2N2222 NPN small signal switching transistor, first introduced in the 1960s, and still very widely used. The metal can is the TO-19 package, capable of slightly higher power dissipation than the cheaper plastic TO-92 package (1.8W vs. 1.5W with a collector temperature no greater than 25 degrees Centigrade).

Thanks for reading, and we hope you enjoy our Component of the Month coverage!

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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